Stuff of The Year 2014, 3: Music

I’m self-indulgently posting a short series on the entertainment that’s fed, stimulated and enhanced my 2014.  This post’s about the music that has most improved the year. They’re in no order, the year in brackets is the year of release. I’ve included links for some of the music. 

Everyday Robots by Damon Albarn (2014)

Remember the Britpop wars? Liam and Noel, where are you now? Was there really ever a question about who was going to emerge from the coke and money blizzard of the mid-90s British music scene with creative integrity intact? Damon Albarn’s 2014 solo album is a thing of understated beauty: a series of diverse influences, well-written songs and more than a dash of contemporary social relevance and wit.

Mr Tembo – if I had such a thing as a song of the year, this would probably be it. 

Heavy Seas Of Love

Hostiles

The music of Steve Lawson  (late ’90s to present day)

2014 has been a very tough year at times – there have been some spectacularly low lows. Engaging with Steve Lawson’s music has done a lot to get me through the year intact. He’s an ambient instrumental bass guitarist. If that sounds pretentious, it isn’t; Steve’s music has a deep honesty and powerful yet hard to define healing quality. I’ve lost count with the number of times I’ve reached for his music in the midst of a very dark day; the day hasn’t got easier as a result, but at least I was able to turn on a light. He’s also a really engaging social media presence.

Steve Lawson’s website (including links to buy his music)

Sleep Like A Baby Tonight by U2  (2014)

Only U2 could give something away for free and still annoy people; the new album was a patchy affair. When it was good it was very good; it’s hard, though, to tell the difference between many of the songs. It’s in danger of being very bland. Given this is the band that gave us Achtung Baby, that’s sad. This song was one of the highlights, a slow-burner that reveals it’s theme slowly and powerfully.

The Take Off And Landing Of Everything by Elbow (2014)

Not the best Elbow album, but its charms revealed themselves journeying across Morocco; so this is as much about the context I ‘got’ this music in as much as it is the music itself. Plus they use the word ‘shindig’ in a rock song. Which is awesome.

Fly Boy Blue/Lunette

New York Morning

I’ve just noticed that compared to last year’s equivalent, this is short. Oh well – in my defense, there is the entire work to date of one artist in there. Plus time and money mean my purchase of music is limited these days. Of course, it’s not like last year’s entries aren’t still nourishing me…

Also in this series … 

1: Movies

2: Books

Stuff Of 2013, 1: Music

Branching out from the Films Of The Year post last year, I’m self-indulgently posting a short series on the entertainment that’s fed, stimulated and enhanced my 2013. I’m making this up as I go along, as it’s my game and my rules, so it may not all have been produced in 2013 – the point is that it’s been a big part of my year. Where possible, I’ll link to the media in question; click on a title to follow a link if I’ve found one suitable. First up, music. 

No Church In The Wild – Jay Z & Kanye West  Dark, addictive and hypnotic hip-hop, used to stunning effect in the soundtrack to The Great Gatsby movie. How can a song this catchy take in urban unrest, youth alienation, philosophy, hedonism, religion and some other stuff too? By ludicrous levels of talent, that’s how. A reminder that when he’s not believing his own hype, Kanye West is capable of matching Jay Z. (Note: the song contains explicit language).

 Crazy In Love – Emeli Sandé & The Bryan Ferry Orchestra (Kid Koala Version) Also on The Great Gatsby soundtrack, this takes Beyoncé’s modern classic pop song, serves it with a side of 1920s dance hall music and in so-doing proves a great pop song is always a great pop song.

Gold Teeth – dan le sac vs Scroobius Pip and Flux Pavilion 3 albums in and yet to let me down, these authentically British-sounding hip-hop types remain among my favourite artists. Relentlessly creative, witty and intelligent, subverting a flesh-obsessed culture and posing serious questions, they represent everything that can be good in their genre. This track is stick-in-the-head brilliant, and as good a piece of rapping as you’ll hear. It’s explicit, but don’t let that deceive you. This is a poem calling us to a better way.

So much for individual songs, now for a handful of albums. Links on individual track names.

AM – Arctic Monkeys A band who promised so much early on in their career lost their way for a while, but found it again … and then some. It’s a more grown up sound, and all the better for it; they show every sign of maturing into a group around for the long haul. They still write great songs, so why not sample … Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High or Do I Wanna Know?

Random Access Memories – Daft Punk  Sometimes an album does well because the publicity campaign is irresistible; sometimes because the music is good. It’s not perfect, of course, but this lived up to the hype, serving up an album of music you don’t so much listen to as inhabit. If you dismiss it as all done on computers … well, I’m sorry for you. Sample … Instant Crush or Lose Yourself To Dance or Get Lucky

 

Modern Vampires Of The City – Vampire Weekend It’s a long time since I fell head over heals in love with an album, and what a joy to do so again. It’s top of many end of year lists, and rightly so. Indie-pop that covers love, lust, theology, urban anonymity and much more with melodies to die for, stunning musicianship and rhythms, lyrics to linger in the memory. And some jokes too. I’ve laughed, cried, read, written sermons, been to the desert, celebrated and grieved to this. It’s just brilliant. Unquestionably my favourite album for years. Sample all of it, if you can. Or one of these … Step or Diane Young or Ya Hey or Unbelievers or Obvious Bicycle.

Revisiting Old Places, or Lessons From My Music Collection

I’ve just finished. A self-satisfied glow of smugness arranges itself all over my aura. I burst over the finish line with a flurry of productivity and the appropriate adrenaline rush of satisfaction at a target reached.

It wasn’t quite like that, truth be told.

Just over a year ago I, for reasons I won’t bore you with, managed to delete my entire music collection from my computer. If you played every song back-to-back without break that would be about 16 days’ worth of aural accompaniment.

Fear not, dear reader, for I rescued the situation. In the process of doing so I discovered all sorts of music I’d forgotten I owned.

I became aware that my listening habits had shrunk to the most recently purchased.

So I Had An Idea.

I decided I’d listen to it.

All of it.

In what order?

A to Z, by album title seemed the way to go. I’d include single songs; but not any recorded worship music of the type you sing in some churches as, frankly, I don’t enjoy it enough to do that to myself. I’d also omit compilation albums I’d got free with magazines. This was for the simple reason that I’ve got about a gazillion of those so I figured that if this was to be realistic I needed to make that decision. I also skipped on anything you may term ‘classical’ music for the entirely fair reason that I don’t own any.

I pompously developed my own social media hashtag for the purpose and format for the tweets relating that to which I was listening at any given time. Thus:

achtung baby – u2 #atozalbums

All lower case was important.

Like I said it’s only taken a year or so; confused by what I do with new music bought which by the alphabetical format should have come earlier in the project. All sorts of similar problems presented themselves. On I struggled, making up the rules as I went along. My game, my rules.

At the end of the project I’m now considering what I could do next – with music, with movies, with … anything I enjoy, really. All suggestions welcome.

While I’m here, a selection (in no special order) of Very Important Life Lessons I’ve gleaned from this.

1) I still don’t feel a vast need to get into ‘classical’ music. It’s not that I don’t like it; it’s just not my thing, really. I speak other musical languages. No, I’m not a philistine. If you really think this makes me culturally ignorant or stupid then let’s have a conversation about Shakespeare or the Victorian novel or Marlowe or Donne or Coupland or Milton and see if you still hold that opinion at the end.

2) I was strangely reminded of all the music I’d given away/thrown away/sold/lost over the years. The first CD I bought was the soundtrack to Back To The Future. I have no idea where that is now, and I didn’t put it on my laptop at any stage. Then there’s some Prince albums. Where have they gone?

3) Even some music that I might be slightly embarrassed to admit to owning I still quite enjoy. All Saints, I’m thinking of you. Among others.

4) If you’d have told me 10 years ago that I’d be into some of the hip-hop or folk I now like then I’d never have believed you.

5) As with ‘classical’ music (see point 1) so with other greats like The Beatles or The Rolling Stones and so many others. I can recognise greatness but still not enjoy it enough to buy it or listen to it often. Enjoying something and acknowledging greatness are two very different things and that’s OK with me. There’s some ‘holes’ in my collection I have no intention of filling.

6) I really enjoyed this. So what else, in the dark recesses of my own soul, might I have forgotten I enjoy but pushed down to give attention to the new and the urgent and the demanding? Acting. There’s one I really need to give some thought to. Silent prayer is another.

7) As with point 3, there may be some stuff in me I’m faintly embarrassed by but actually that’s OK too. I don’t have to impress anyone with what I’m into as long as it’s not damaging me or another person.

8) Why is ‘Christian music’ SO unimaginative? Why do these bands keep impersonating U2 and Coldplay? I like those 2 bands quite a lot, but I also like Kanye West and R.E.M. and Radiohead and Faithless and Manic Street Preachers and so much more. So … you know, don’t get stuck! Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins puts it really well in this short little clip.

9) Doing this bought back some fantastic memories of when I first heard certain albums (e.g. I stopped everything I was doing when I first heard Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’,  lay on the bed and cried at the beauty of it), or gigs I went to (e.g. Radiohead again, the guy in front of us threatening to punch me and my mate Mark for jumping up and down).

10) Here’s one for you. Try something similar. It needn’t be music, it needn’t be art at all. You don’t have to blog it, tweet it, Facebook it if you don’t want to go public. Find some old books, pull out that box of letters and mementoes, have a read of something you wrote years ago, randomly look at old emails. Anything, really. How have you changed since then? In what ways are you the same? How do you respond to this now that is different to how you responded then? Are you ashamed of or embarrassed by something you have no need to be that way about? Do you need some help to think something through?

As if to prove I’m no philistine, I’ll end with some T.S. Eliot that’s haunted throughout this musical journey:

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”  

(T.S. Eliot, ‘Little Gidding’, the last of his ‘4 Quartets’)

Ordinary People + Angry Music = joy

I think I was unique among the tens of thousands present in being able to say that the last thing I did before leaving for the gig was take a communion service in a home for the elderly. American rap-rock group Linkin Park played their first South African concert at Cape Town stadium on Wednesday November 7th. It was a fierce, gale-force wind-swept early summer’s day. That carried a high price – before the concert a sponsor’s branded scaffolding tower fell (outside the stadium), injuring several people and killing one. It was a tragic accident, and as the exact facts are still (at the time of writing) being ascertained it’s best to comment no further. Thoughts and prayers remain, of course, with those affected.

Linkin Park were born in 1996, a furious blend of aggressive guitar based rock and electronically backed rap, they’re one of the few bands who have survived that music sub-set’s brief moment in the sun of chart success; achieving significant and long-lasting global success. This is a sort of music that’s often dismissed quickly by those who don’t get it – making a sound like this work in a live environment is a huge musical challenge, one to which the band rise. Battling against some of the worst sound I’ve heard at a gig (strong winds are a PA person’s nightmare at an outdoors gig), the band are in the musical equivalent of some sort of high-wire act to make it all work, harnessing the different sounds and images to at times brilliant effect. In fact, I preferred them live to on record; recorded I find the sound (with the exception of the first album) too clean, too produced. They are, after all, singing angry songs about fear, self-loathing and alienation; so the slick production that’s come to mark their sound since the early days has always felt to me a little at odds with the music itself.

This was a crowd which had waited a long time – 18 years – for the band to make it to South Africa; the set, front-loaded with older hits worked brilliantly.There’s an inherent irony here that must be touched on. Cape Town is often referred to as the most unequal city in the most unequal country in the world. So for a stadium full of the statistically richest people in the city being sung to and singing out about alienation and pain is slightly surreal. That, and this is a manufactured, slick set-up – just how angry can a band really be when they find themselves soundtracking video games and movie franchises?

But still. As I’ve alluded, this is angry, loud music about difficult emotions. (If you’re new to their music, go to their You Tube Channel to sample; I suggest starting with the exhaustingly brilliant One Step Closer from the first album, then the haunting and oddly beautiful much later The Catalyst – a prayer for God to draw close; after that, hunt around and see what you find). People, who for all the world look healthy and happy, spent an evening joyfully engaging with anger and suffering. I say joyfully deliberately. I have a memory of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke being asked about his band’s concerts – aren’t they miserable because your music is about such painful emotions and dark subjects? No, he replied – joy is shared truth, so the band’s concerts are oddly joyful. That’s not the whole of a Christian understanding of joy, but it’s certainly part of it – the catharsis of sharing, of acknowledging together dark places, shining the light on the them and so removing the fear.

The Bible does similar things. The Psalms are often referred to the church’s first prayer book or collection of hymns. It contains ecstatic shouts of praise – and not a little anger too. Psalm 139 is mostly a prayer of awe at God’s power and creativity, but in verse 19 it has an alarming turn of phrase: If only you, God, would slay the wicked! Away from me, you who are bloodthirsty!.

Or take Psalm 116, verses 10 and 11 I believed; therefore I said ‘I am greatly afflicted.’ And in my dismay I said ‘all men are liars’.

There’s a whole book called Lamentations. The title fits well.

There are many other places in the Bible we could continue with this; there’s a consistent pattern in scripture of the expression of these emotions of anger and fear and pain leading a person closer to God, not further away. So, as a stadium full of people sang “God bless us, every one, we’re broken people living under a loaded gun”; as angry music allowed 90 minutes of joyful shared experience, I wondered … how does this translate? How do we take these emotions, in the Bible expressed towards God, into our contemporary worship? It’s a challenge – and it’s one, as I’ve touched on before, that the writers of worship songs are tentatively taking up. There is further to go, though. Which is why a lot of us – Christians or not – still need bands like Linkin Park to fill the gaps for us.

That, and they’re great live.

U2 – No Lines, No Limits

(This is the first of the  ‘other stuff’. Occasionally I’ll branch out from films to look at something else that has got my attention. If it’s not your interest, stick with me. Back to films soon).

Let’s be clear, this is only a first impression. I’ll know more when I’ve lived with this – I think you only really grasp an album when you’ve lived with it, breathed it, let it soundtrack the stuff of life. Here, however, are a few impressions.

I come at this as an unabashed fan, but not one who doesn’t occasionally feel embarrassed by the band. All I can say, though, is that they keep resurfacing in my life. U2’s music has journeyed with me through most of the major turning points of my life. My first major memory is my sister buying Unforgettable Fire on vinyl and playing it to death. I liked them then, loved Joshua Tree but fell head over heels with Achtung Baby. That just grew and grew. It fascinated me all the more, as a Christian at university, developing my own faith, while they discovered Ecclesiastes. It always confused me why some Christians felt so let down by this masterpiece, when all I thought is that they had really broken through to something special. Through this, 4 concerts (5 if you include the BBC balcony in London) – at least one of them being one of the finest pieces of performance art you’re likely to see (Zoo TV), the other being an evening of profound depth (Elevation tour in London, as Bono’s father was dying and I experienced the beginnings of what I now know to be depression and panic attacks).

So to No Line On The Horizon. One word? Not enough, but I’ll stick with ‘spacious’. Their music was always best heard under an open sky with 60,000 others, but as Bono has said they needed to record this album remembering that most would listen to on earphones as they walked. So it was. On the first two listens, I was intrigued. On the ipod, something else happened. Reviewers had said ‘Moment of Surrender’ was a standout, one of their greatest, but until then I didn’t really get it.  In the space between my head? Extraordinary. Unlike anything they’ve done before, but also strangely reminiscent. Subtle, deep and beautiful. Quite stunning, and not a little strange that one song (and in time the whole album) makes that whole private, intimate space so open. I love ‘Breathe’ too, a stream of consciousness, feverish rambling, as a (possibly) holy man wonders through an urban nightmare straight out of CNN’s breaking-news. The closing ‘Cedars Of Lebanon’ is wondrous, a thing of sleepy, dirty, beauty, quite the opposite of what you expect of a U2 song with that title.

The whole album feels for now like Unforgettable Fire’s dark, surreal cousin. It probably will turn out to be one of their finest, but really it’s too soon for that sort of judgement. It is, though, a work of genuine depth and searching. I’m struck by so many lines, but there’s little point in listing them now. I need to live with this, grasp it and appropriate it – upcoming holiday is well-timed.

For now, it is enough to be sure of simply this: there is good sense in Bono’s insistence that they won’t go anywhere soon.